We may be in uncertain times, but we can still have a comms plan

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We are living in uncertain times. It makes planning our communication tricky – but not impossible. Afterall, planning is really just about being prepared.

Uncertainty can be used as a reason not to plan even in normal times. Things always change so why develop a communication plan that might be out of date by next week?

Is agile the answer? Communicators increasingly find themselves working on agile projects, but those principles are rarely applied to communication planning. It tends not to be something in which we’re trained, planning is often still thought of as being a linear process – if it’s thought about at all.

I recently found a great quote about supporting agile projects, it’s from the Effective Change Manager’s Handbook* :

‘We don’t know if we will plant barley or cabbages but we will clear the ground, plough and nourish the soil, so when we know, we’re ready.’

This is a much nicer way of putting what I’ve been saying:

Let’s not call it a plan, let’s call it a framework.

It’s what I suggested on the webinar the APM People Specific Interest Group (SIG) ran recently on communicating in challenging times.

A webinar participant asked how we could get people to plan communication in the current circumstances. I suggested to the participant that people might get on-board with the idea of a framework rather than a plan. By a framework, I actually mean most of the planning components:

  • Stakeholders: make sure you know who they are, what type of information they need.
  • Over-arching narrative or messages: you may be waiting for the detail, but there will be some messages that can be agreed, for example, are there guiding principles that will be used to inform decisions?
  • Channels: how will you reach your stakeholders? Are your channels up to the task when people are working remotely? Do your stakeholders know how you will reach them?
    I am a big advocate of having a channel strategy. By that I mean simply agreeing what type of content goes into which channel – and making sure this is adhered to. This helps stakeholders to prioritise engagement with the content. Do they need to pay attention to it now? Or is it helpful content that can wait and be reviewed in a spare moment with a coffee?
  • Feedback: ensure you have a mechanism for capturing feedback from stakeholders and explaining if or how this has been acted on.

If this is all in place, then you’re ready to go as soon as decisions are made.

Adopting a fully agile approach to communication planning can seem daunting and there isn’t much guidance available on how to do this. So, as a first step think about adopting some of the principles, for example:

  • Check effectiveness as you go. This just makes good sense and enables us to make best use of our resources. Why wait until the end of the campaign to see if it worked? If something isn’t working, be ready to adapt.
  • Check in with stakeholders throughout the life of the campaign to see if their needs have changed and also to involve them in developing and evolving the communication approach.

It is also about listening. Of course, sometimes you just need to tell people stuff (but you still need to make sure that the message has got through) but the most effective communication is when we listen to others and act on that feedback if we can. Good communication is two-way and symmetrical and part of our planning should ensure we have the channels in place to enable this to happen.

So even in uncertain times, we can still have a plan. Sorry, framework!

Listen to the webinar on Communicating in uncertain times for more about the principles of good communication planning. Find out more about daily webinars by APM, click here.

* Sidhu, R., Skelsey, D., Smith, R., & King, D. (2014). The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook: Essential Guidance to the Change Management Body of Knowledge. Kogan Page.

Image: Roobcio/Shutterstock

Ann Pilkington

Posted by Ann Pilkington on 16th Jun 2020

About the Author

Ann is the author of Communicating Projects published by Gower and a chapter author in Exploring Internal Communication published by Gower. She is co-founder and director of PR Academy which is a leading provider of education and training in all aspects of communication. Her early career was in journalism before moving to PR and communication rolls with major companies including Barclays, BT and The AA. She works with the People SIG.

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